Mickey Crowley used to tell people that his greatest attribute was his "gift of gab." While he was, by all accounts, an outstanding conversationalist who could tell a compelling story at the drop of a hat, he was so much more than that. The longtime Long Island resident was one of the most respected and accomplished NCAA men’s basketball referees, blowing the whistle for some of the biggest games in the country for nearly 25 years.
“Mickey was as good as it gets,” ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale said. “When he walked in, both coaches knew they were going to get a fair shot. He had great integrity and great knowledge of the rules. Most of all, he communicated so well with all the people involved in the game, even the announcers. He did a great job always sharing what was going on.”
Crowley, who officiated the 1989 and 1991 NCAA Tournament finals, died Sunday night at his home in Calabash, North Carolina, his family said. He was 85.
Born April 22, 1934, in Queens, Crowley went to high school at LaSalle Academy in Manhattan and served from 1954-57 in the Army, where he played on the All-Army baseball team. He played in the Yankees' minor-league system in the early 1960s, but always maintained a love of basketball.
“He tried becoming a baseball umpire, because he loved baseball, but he said the games are too long,” said Ralph Wimbish, who co-authored Crowley’s 2017 autobiography, "Throw the Ball High."
“He figured basketball was a lot more efficient, as far as time goes,” Wimbish said.
Crowley moved to Long Island in 1971, living in Centereach, then Holbrook before moving to North Carolina in 2015. Besides officiating NCAA games, he was the assistant executive director of officiating for high school athletics for more than 20 years in Nassau County, overseeing the on-field governance of all sports.
Crowley worked 21 straight NCAA Tournaments. He worked his first championship game in 1989, with Michigan playing Seton Hall.
“It was an honor,” said son Tim Crowley, 60, of Philadelphia. “It’s the pinnacle of a college basketball referee to do that. He was humbled by the selection, and his peers all thought it was a great selection.”
Crowley's success on the court went back to that "gift of gab," primarily his ability to defuse a tense situation with a joke or sly remark.
“The thing that set him apart, other than being a good official, was that he was able to build a good relationship with some of the big-name coaches in the '70s, '80s and '90s,” Tim said. “He would actually call some of those coaches friends, which is a little bit unique considering the college coach/referee relationship.”
One of those friends was former Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo.
“Mickey had a feel for whether it was a close game, a national TV game, or a play with 30 seconds to go,” Carlesimo said. “Mickey knew the difference between that and the first play of the game or a 40-point game. His personality and the kind of person he was came across in his officiating and made him a better official.
"You knew he wasn’t going to get overwhelmed by the importance of the game. You knew he wasn’t going to fly off and overreact when it wasn’t in the best interest of the game.”
Crowley retired from officiating after the 1991 national title game between Duke and Kansas. He remained involved in basketball as a superviser of officials in the Atlantic 10, Ivy League and Patriot League. He also ran a high-level referee camp with accomplished women’s basketball referee Phyllis Deveney, a member of the Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame. Crowley is in the New York Basketball and Suffolk Sports Halls of Fame.
“Mickey Crowley was as good as it gets blowing that whistle,” Vitale said.
Crowley also is survived by his wife of 62 years, Pat; daughters Terri Crowley, Kathie Yllanes and Christine Sales of North Carolina and Joanne Gryski of Virginia; 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. The funeral was held Thursday at St. Brendan the Navigator R.C. Church in Shallotte, North Carolina, with burial at Brunswick Memorial Gardens, also in Shallotte.
A Long Island memorial service will be held at a later date, Tim said.